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Liberal Intellectuals and Public Culture in Modern Britain, 1815-1914


Making Words Flesh


William C. Lubenow


Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2010

Hardcover. viii-252 pp. ISBN 9781843835592. £55.00/$105.00


Reviewed by Peter Mandler

Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge



The culture of Victorian liberalism—that is, liberalism considered as a way of life rather than as a political ideology—has become over the last few decades a topic of growing historiographical interest. One can trace this tendency back to the work of Stefan Collini on ‘public moralism’, Mary Poovey on the language of social reform, and Patrick Joyce on urban culture. It has manifested itself more recently in books on liberalism and cultural property by Jordanna Bailkin, on the public spaces of Northern towns by Simon Gunn, and most recently of all on the moral dilemmas of ‘living liberalism’ by Elaine Hadley. William Lubenow’s contribution to this literature starts with his assumption that what was most significant about Victorian liberalism was unleashed by the repeal of religious tests on entry to public life in 1828-29, and the gradual withdrawal thereafter of other religious exclusions, most notably affecting Oxford and Cambridge. This starting-point helps to draw attention to the institutions that matter most to Lubenow: Parliament (but not civic institutions), the public schools, Oxford and Cambridge, the Church of England (but not nonconformity), the learned professions (especially the law and the clergy, but not medicine or engineering), the high-end gentleman’s clubs. Lubenow’s book is fundamentally about how the spirit of liberalism affected these institutions of the Establishment.

On the whole his verdict is positive. What had been a closed ‘confessional-military’ world became open to talent, flexibility and imagination, creating a milieu that was cultivated, meritocratic, and thoughtful, both self-critical and self-reforming. Lubenow defends aspects of this world that normally attract criticism—the Oxbridge examination system (good tests of imagination, good instruments for selecting leaders), the intellectual dominance of the classics (although Lubenow prefers to dwell upon Greek at the expense of Latin), clubland (not stuffy or exclusive, but a crucial incubator of core liberal values such as trust and friendship), family connections (a source of pride and aspiration, not of corruption or mediocrity). He is fundamentally optimistic about the ability of Britain’s Establishment institutions to adapt and thrive in conditions of liberalism, even the aristocracy: ‘the landed classes did not decline... they transformed themselves from an aristocracy whose position had been founded on birth and landed wealth into one whose positions were sustained by the values of the nineteenth-century universities and professions’ [72]. But the book closes with two chapters that represent exceptions to this general rule: one that asks how far Roman Catholics could thrive as liberals, and another (drawing on Lubenow’s previous work) that acknowledges how badly liberals were split by ‘nationalism’, particularly Irish home rule.

Lubenow’s deep immersion in the world he describes, and his tendency to dwell lovingly upon those aspects that he finds most admirable, give this book an air of authority but also of idiosyncrasy. His tone is not analytical but thickly descriptive. Details about clubs are ‘endlessly fascinating’, he grants, ‘but it is important to call attention to some general points their histories suggest’, after which point we get many more pages of details. The big issues Lubenow raises are vitiated somewhat by his tendency to lavish attention on the subsidiary elements that he finds most absorbing. An important point about the ‘different emotional spaces’ that clubs and societies opened up begins with a few lines about ‘affection and friendship’, but then veers off into ten pages on homoeroticism. The chapter on Roman Catholics, having posed intriguingly the questions about authority and patriotism that the clash between liberalism and Catholicism raised, devolves almost entirely into a discussion of the Catholic peerage. The chapter on nationalism says almost nothing about how Gladstonian liberals reconciled their liberalism and nationalism, and devotes itself instead to a close scrutiny of that minority of liberals who rejected Irish nationalism and found themselves in an unstable space between liberalism and conservatism.

Finally, we have to ask whether this truly is a book about ‘liberal intellectuals’? The preference for Establishment institutions does of course allow Lubenow to take in many intellectuals who inhabited those institutions, especially Oxbridge. But it also allows him to devote endless attention to minor backbench MPs and denizens of clubland who were not by any stretch of the definition ‘intellectuals’. The most frequently mentioned characters in this book, after Gladstone, are Mountstuart Grant Duff and the 15th Duke of Norfolk, with Fitzjames Stephen puffing in close behind. What Lubenow has written is a book about how far the Establishment—the Church of England, Parliament, the ancient universities, the nobility and gentry—adapted to fresh infusions of personnel and ideas as a consequence of the ‘age of reform’. This perspective allows him to highlight and defend aspects of liberalism that are too frequently dismissed or neglected by a post-Victorian commentariat, but it cannot be said that it permits a balanced verdict on Victorian liberalism—or even ‘liberal intellectuals’—in the round.




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